Kuala Lumpur is the cultural centre of Peninsular Malaysia. A melting pot of cultures and traditions, the city is a modern and cosmopolitan capital with the three dominant ethnicities – Malays, Chinese and Indians – that form the majority of Malaysia’s population.
Although these races, and sundry ethnic groups, have distinctly different cultures and traditions, Malaysia’s populace gets along swimmingly. Whether it’s due to the languid and generous spirit of the nation or because of the simple fact that the country is a beautiful and serene land is anyone’s guess. When you’re in Malaysia you’ll encounter friendly people with ready smiles just about everywhere you go.
Malays are the ethnic majority in Malaysia and compose a large population that reside in the outskirts and areas just outside the city. They are constitutionally Muslims and were traditionally farmers and fishermen originating from Palembang in Sumatra. They speak the national language which is Bahasa Malaysia, a form of Malay language which is similar to Indonesia.
Malays have a rich heritage in weaving fabrics and wooden handicrafts, much evident in Malay-centric states such as Terengganu and Kelantan. Malays also form the bulk of Parliament and dominate the political scene in Malaysia.
The Chinese have set foot in Malaysian soil since the 15th Century, but it was only in the late 18th Century that they came en masse to Malaysia from Fujian and Guangdong in China to work the booming tin industry. Many of them settled in Kuala Lumpur and were an integral element for making the city as prosperous it is today. Within the Chinese community, you will find many different dialects but the majority in Kuala Lumpur are of Cantonese descent, followed by the Hokkiens.
The Chinese are the economic power of Malaysia, and in Kuala Lumpur, this is evident by the large number of Chinese inhabiting the urban and city areas. Besides being the second largest race in Malaysia, the Chinese are known for their colourful customs and traditions especially during the Chinese New Year. During this time, they put up fantastic displays of ‘Lion’ Dancing beside providing ‘Ang Pows’ - red packets in money to children, a practice that has carried over to the Malays and Indians of Malaysia.
Today, many Chinese in Kuala Lumpur are English-educated, speaking primarily English with some Chinese dialects in between. The Chinese also pride themselves on good education, and to bridge the divide between local dialects, use Mandarin as the medium of communication and teaching. An overwhelming majority of Chinese are involved with the corporate and commercial business sector of Malaysia.
The Indians in Malaysia are the third largest race, and a sizeable number of them are located in Kuala Lumpur. Originating from Southern India, most Indians practise Hinduism and speak Tamil or Hindi. Most of their customs and traditions are intricately tied with their religion. Hence, during the Hindu festivals such as Deepavali, Indians will perform colourful rites and visit temples. They were traditionally estate workers for tapping rubber when they first set foot in Malaysia. Today, many Indians are involved in the business sector, especially in restaurants.
Originating from the Punjab region, the Punjabis are an ethnic group in Malaysia. In the Punjabi community, the male is known as ‘Sikh’ and the female is known as ‘Kaur’. Known for their colourful culture, Bhangra is a traditional Punjabi musical art form that is increasing in popularity all over the world. Their traditional costumes consist of a ‘kurta’ or ‘baana’ for the male - normally worn with a turban - and a Punjabi suit or ‘lenga’ for the female. The Punjabis celebrate Vaisakhi, the Sikh’s New Year and Harvest Festival.
The Orang Asli
The term ‘Orang Asli’ refers to the indigenous people group found in Peninsular Malaysia, and they are the true natives of the land, having been here first before any other race since thousands of years ago. They speak unique languages of Austronesian origin, but many have adopted Malay as a means of communication today. Originally farmers and hunters that reside in the deep rainforests of Peninsular Malaysia, many have adopted a commercial lifestyle and their traditional customs and skills are in danger of being abandoned.
Around Kuala Lumpur, there are pockets of Orang Asli villages that live near the fringes of rainforests but some have migrated to the city. They still sustain their livelihoods partly from harvesting the jungle, but their outlook has become more modern with the advent of infrastructure and amenities. Some have put on their traditional customs and skills on display for tourists to support their income. Still, the Orang Asli remain largely neglected by society and are in danger of being undermined rapidly by modernity. The plight of the Orang Asli, thus, hangs in the balance for the future.